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Who knew that young students would be so enthralled by the hair on my arms that it was unnecessary to begin a lesson with an attention-grabbing activity? I was glad I hadn't worn shorts.
This time last year, I was in the thick of a 10-week teaching placement in Arusha, Tanzania, imagining what I might be doing as the new school year unfolded back home.
Oh, how I missed using the overhead projector, the photocopier, electric lights and "teaching manipulatives," such as geometric solids and pattern blocks.
Teaching methods in Tanzania involve very little hands-on discovery for the students. Rote memorization and meticulously copied notes are the norm. Tests involve regurgitating these notes.
Furthermore, corporal punishment is very much a part of social norms. Whenever I said anything about a child being beaten, I was told it was a cultural matter, and would continue despite my sharing non-physical means of discipline. I distanced myself to avoid the sounds of their wailing.
Tanzanian teachers from both primary and secondary levels were curious about "Western" teaching methods, and many sat in on my classes. I did my best not to stray too far from how I teach in Canada by including some manipulatives in my math lessons.
"Characteristics of geometric solids" is a topic I've taught many times. It can be difficult for young students to visualize them, so I decided to collect as much cardboard I could find around the school. This was easy, as garbage was strewn everywhere.
After drawing templates of the shapes on the cardboard, the students were placed into groups and had to construct a solid. It was fantastic to watch them work together. We used their creations to play games to help them learn about the characteristics of each solid. They were shy, and I used treats to persuade them to participate.
Teaching math in Tanzania is bliss on account of the students' solid foundation in the basics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I remember telling them that if they were to play some math games against students from Canada, they would blow them out of the water. The Tanzanian students were very happy to know they could do something that fewer and fewer students are able to do in Canada. My challenge was in explaining what the numbers actually meant, and how they were used in real-life situations.
Teaching such concepts as Pythagorean theory to the secondary students proved less frustrating than in Canada, since Tanzanian students know how to apply and manipulate the algebraic equation, how to reduce square roots and multiply squares, all without the assistance of a calculator or any other hand-held device.
But while I relished teaching Math, English and French, it was the "extras" that made my experience memorable.
I will miss the respect that Tanzanian students show their teachers. Although the secondary students tested me the first day (I guess some things are universal), it was smooth sailing soon after. Students would stand up to greet me when I entered the classroom, or to ask or respond to a question. Kids were always asking if they could carry my backpack and walk me to the school office. The candid conversations we shared during these walks were precious. Having the little ones give me a hug to thank me for repairing their blackboard, which had been full of holes, nearly brought me to tears. It took so little effort on my part, but meant so much to them.
My most cherished memory was preparing pizzas from scratch for the littlest ones, who were no older than 7. They had never eaten pizza before. As challenging as it was to obtain all the ingredients, another volunteer and I managed to prepare an authentic pizza feast that elicited the most scrumptious smiles I've ever seen. The fun was watching the kids try to hold onto a slice while eating it. We attempted to demonstrate, but they all did exactly the same thing: Smelled the pizza slice, picked off all the toppings to eat first, then consumed the cheese, licked the sauce and finally ate the bread. They savoured every part.
As an educator, it was difficult for me to leave Tanzania knowing there was so much more work to be done. The people truly crave education. They want to improve their lives, and they know that education is key. Each evening I was tutoring adults in English and French.
Having visited some of the students' homes, where building materials consisted of sticks and mud, mosquito nets were used to store clothes, electricity and toilets were absent, and water sources a fair distance away, I was moved by the way that families conducted their lives with optimism, grace and thankfulness for what they did have. I've never felt so privileged.
A year ago, my days were filled with teaching, my evenings with tutoring and my weekends with painting and making repairs at the schools.
As I work through this school year in Ontario, with an abundance of resources, my thoughts keep returning there, grateful for all the teachable moments experienced – especially by me.
Paul Naim lives in Windsor, Ont.